The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 2. The Worth Of A Boy
Chapter 1 The Worth Of A Boy
Everything started with the boy--more precisely, with the boy's eyes. If he hadn't taken an afternoon drowse and woke to those beseeching eyes, none of it would ever have happened. His life would have been just that much simpler, that less rich, that less interesting. And he would have been so much less wise.
It was March. Winter was melting but spring had barely shown itself. The man rode alone. He'd spent the coldest months in an isolated village where he'd arrived just in time to help the inhabitants fend off an invasion of hungry wolves. When the pack finally retreated and the snow was half gone, he left, riding away in the night. The villagers might remember a man with flashing eyes, his hair and beard flecked with silver. Perhaps his deeds would slowly turn to legend. They had already begun to say he was a magician, which annoyed him a little. He disliked such labels. They seemed so limiting. Maybe they'd forget him. It didn't matter; it was time to move on.
He'd had many names bestowed upon him by those he had met in the several centuries since he had arrived. One name was Mithrandir. It pleased him as much as any, and it described him accurately, as far as it went. "One who wanders in grey," the word meant. The wandering part was certainly correct. Other than a few dozen years immediately following his arrival, when he'd spent time reacquainting himself with the most powerful among the Elves, he'd done nothing but wander. The color could allude to his flowing robe and great grey cloak, or maybe to his smoldering eyes. Or, he mused, it might refer to the grey brooding temper that occasionally clutched him, or the thick fog of uncertainty that came over him at times. He smirked ruefully. No one ever seemed to name him for his rolling laughter or for his remarkable way with fire. Most saw what they wished to see. Very few saw anything more.
He had been wandering in the edges of the great East, sniffing out rumors of an old Enemy. But he had smelled nothing of importance, only more rumors. He'd had to choose: continue far to the east in search of a long-cold trail, hearing an occasional fleeting whisper, or turn back. He had nothing to go by except a hunch. His heart told him that eventually, the one for whom he searched would return to his old haunts. And those old haunts were in the West, where the bitterest of his foes still dwelt—the descendants of those who had once defeated him.
So the man headed northwest. He had vague plans to spend a while with the mortal folk who dwelt on the eastern fringes of the great kingdoms of the north. Noble, in their own way, and hardy, they seemed to him, ancient even by the standards of the mighty people, the Numenoreans. The proper time to visit the far-flung realms of Earendil's heirs would come. But he wasn't interested yet in the mighty. Things—and people—overlooked by others had always intrigued him.
He was curious to know who lived at these crossroads between the great cities of men and the kingdoms of the Dwarves in the northeastern mountains. Did they have dealings with people of the vast and mysterious East? How long had they been here in these rough hills, farming and raising animals, carving wood and working metal, firing pottery, making wine, their towns slowly growing and thriving? How many wars had come and gone, how many great rulers overthrown, and these folk remained? Maybe some wise old head could recite their legends; maybe they had forgotten all their legends. He intended to find out.
He was a fortnight's unhurried ride southeast of the region called the Iron Hills, where Dwarves had dwelt for centuries. It was a lovely day, and his heart was at ease. He found it difficult, on this bright afternoon, to give much thought to enemies, or to evil. A tune the villagers had taught him in the long winter nights drifted through his mind. He hummed a few notes. The melody came to him and he began to sing.
Oh where have you gone,
My sweet sunny morn?
I am weary of Winter
So cold and forlorn!
Come home, sweet Springtime,
Come home! Make me warm.
I shall meet my true love
In your golden arms.
His voice was modest, at best, and it had cracked on the high notes. A good thing no one but Rubeo, his stallion, was here to witness him massacre a sweet little tune. He reached into his saddlebag for a drink. But his water skin was empty, the sun was hot on his back, and his horse flagged. Time to find a stream. He climbed a rocky knob and scanned for a glimmer of silver. That wooded fold in the bottom of the valley, surely that was a riverbed. He aimed for it.
The little river bubbled cheerfully beneath an overhang of snow still clinging to its north-facing bank. He and his mount drank their fill. He found a spot in the afternoon sun while his horse dragged its traces, nuzzling the ground for tender shoots. He settled on his back with his head resting on his saddlebag, his staff lying on the ground beside him. The clouds drifted and his eyelids grew heavy.
He woke to the slanting light of late afternoon with a prickling sense in the back of his neck: someone was watching. He sat up and searched the bank of the stream, the trees, the dead grass. There! Eyes peeked at him--young and bright--then they vanished. The grass shifted and was still once more. His lips twitched. The youngster had hidden himself cleverly, lying flat.
"Good day! No need to hide. I promise not to bite," the man called.
The eyes appeared again. He thought he knew how to flush him out. He reached into the saddlebag and brought out a round loaf of brown bread.
"Hungry?" he asked.
A head rose out of the weeds. Black curls appeared, and a brown face looking very hungry indeed. The boy bit his lip.
"Come, join me for a late lunch."
Mithrandir watched as the boy devoured the entire loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese and a wrinkled apple leftover from last fall. He looked to be about six or seven. He was dark skinned and scrawny. His eyes were large and black. His clothes were in tatters and his feet were bare. The man wondered what in Arda the child was doing out here all alone. With a mouth full of apple, the boy finally spoke.
"Ain't you gonna eat, sir?"
"Apparently I was not as hungry as you were, my boy." One brow rose as he peeked into his bag. "Besides, I believe you've cleaned me out."
The child's hands flew up to his mouth. "Sorry! There's a bit of apple left…" He spit out a half-chewed chunk of fruit onto a filthy palm. The man pursed his lips.
"Why don't you finish it."
In a moment the apple was gone. The boy looked up cautiously, wiping his dirty chin with an equally dirty hand, accomplishing nothing but to smear a wide swath of dirt across his mouth. The man smiled. The boy smiled back, displaying a gap in his teeth.
"What's your name, lad?"
"Nod, sir," he said, as his head bobbed up and down.
"Where are you from? Where's your family?"
His grin vanished. "Got none."
"Ah. Who looks after you?"
"Nobody," the child mumbled, suddenly sullen.
"I see." His gaze narrowed as he took another look at the boy's flimsy rags. "Well, Nod, you and I are alike. Nobody looks after me, either. I must look after myself too." Although, he thought, I do a sight better job at it than you do, poor young fellow.
The man leaned back onto one elbow and stretched out his legs.
"You know, I was just beginning to think about how much farther I would ride today. The afternoon is getting on. I've been sleeping on the cold ground for many nights. I'm interested in a bed tonight: a real bed in an inn, with a roof and a fire and a stable, and maybe some hot stew and a mug of beer." The boy looked up and stared. "You're welcome to join me. I'd like the company, and you could sit before me on Rubeo, my horse. He won't mind a bit of extra burden, I'm sure. I saw some curls of smoke beyond the next ridge." He waved his hand to the north, through the trees that lined the river. "I mean to go that way."
But Nod's eyes, which had been growing wider and wider, dropped as soon as the man indicated his intended direction of travel.
"Can't go that way. Other way."
The boy pointed over the fields. Mithrandir frowned. Of course, the "other way" was the way he'd just come. He'd meant to continue working his way north, planning to intersect an ancient east-west road reputed to cross these lands. But the child was hiding something, and the man was ever curious.
"Hmm. Why can't you go north?"
The boy refused to raise his head or answer. The man tugged on his beard, dragging his fingers through it.
"Well, what if we ride west? That way I'll…"
Nod mumbled at the ground. "South."
Mithrandir looked south, over the rolling pastureland he'd just traversed.
"South is where I've just been. I don't particularly want to go south. Perhaps east?"
The boy nearly shook his head from his shoulders. The head rose. Frightened eyes met the man's and then dropped again. What sort of trouble would cause such terror in a young child?
"How far south, may I ask?"
"Dunno. Long way."
"Is that where you're from, Nod? The south?"
The thin shoulders shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe."
He studied the boy as if the answer to this puzzle might lie before him. He frowned as he noticed things for the first time. Nod's skinny wrists had red lines—chafe marks—about them, more than half hidden by a layer of dirt. Through a tear in the back of the threadbare tunic he saw streaks crossing the child's shoulders. Some were white against his brown skin, some were bright and raw. Mithrandir raised one brow; his eyes gleamed. So that was it.
He sat up and reached out. The boy shrank back, pulling his hands away from the man's searching fingers.
"Don't be afraid, child," he said gently. "I promise not to hurt you."
Pale fingertips quickly traced over the boy's wrists.
Nod blushed and crossed his arms, tucking his hands away from sight.
"Nothin'. Scratched 'em."
"Hmm. I see. Of course you did."
Without more delay the man stood up, grabbed his saddlebag and tossed it over his shoulder. Nod frowned in confusion at his wrists. They didn't sting anymore, and the raw marks had mysteriously vanished. It was quickly forgotten as the boy heard the stranger's next words.
"Well, Nod, it seems I must go south after all. Something I'd quite overlooked needs my attention. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me as I ride, boy?"
The gap-toothed grin flashed again as the boy jumped to his feet. "Yes, sir!"
Mithrandir whistled and his roan horse trotted up. He saddled him and fixed the bag. Nod stood nearby, shivering in the thin sunlight.
"Let's wrap you in this."
He unfastened his cloak and doubled its thickness. The man lifted Nod onto the horse's back and tucked the cloak around him. He took a moment to gently pat the boy's shoulders, where a moment ago he'd noticed those ugly marks. He had a hand on the saddlehorn and was about to place a boot into the near stirrup when they heard shouts.
Mithrandir turned. A dozen men ran through the trees and splashed across the stream toward them. They gestured and pointed.
"There he is, the runaway!"
"Caught you, you devil!"
Nod tugged urgently at his sleeve. "Mister!" he whispered. "We got to ride!"
It was already too late; the men had quickly encircled them. They looked ordinary enough, farmers or dairymen, he guessed. But oddly, each one held some implement: a hoe, a long-bladed dagger, a sturdy fork, or a broken rake handle. Two had bows and quivers full of hunting arrows, and one carried a thick cudgel in his fist.
Mithrandir gripped his staff, kept hold of the horse's reins in his other hand and swept his gaze over the circle. For the moment, that seemed to be enough. They stopped a dozen feet away, and several stepped back a pace, fear in their eyes. He spoke sternly.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
"Gen'lemen! Ha!" The biggest man swaggered forward and brandished his cudgel as he spoke. His voice was harsh. "That's nice, ain't it, lads? We gen'lemen have come for him." He pointed at Nod. "The boy. Hand him over, stranger."
The man was two inches taller and much broader than the bearded stranger. Mithrandir turned his staff outward, pointing at the big man's chest.
"What do you want with him?"
"He's a thief!" "Runaway!" "Little sneak!" They all snarled at once.
"My goodness, you come for a boy thief armed with all this—knives, arrows, clubs?" he said. "He must be a mighty clever thief. Whatever could a small boy carry off of such value that a dozen armed men give chase?"
Several men shifted their feet uncomfortably, flushed and stared at the ground. But the big man placed his thick fists on his hips and planted his feet widely. His harsh voice sweetened.
"Listen, stranger. Nobody wants trouble. You go on your way, just give the boy over and nothing will come of it."
Mithrandir glanced up at Nod. The boy was trembling despite the thick cloak; he hunched down in the saddle as if trying to hide in plain sight.
"Nothing will come of it for me, you mean."
"'At's right. No harm to ye, sir, s'long as you hand him over peaceable." The man's lip curled. He leaned forward with a wink. "No need to bother about the likes of him." His thick head tilted toward the boy. "Filthy little savage. Best let us take 'im off your hands."
Mithrandir eyed the man with distaste. "And what will you do to him?"
"Now, why would a gen'leman like you care about that?" the man sneered. "He ain't none of your business."
"That's where you are mistaken. You see, he and I are traveling companions. His safety is very much my business."
The tone of sweetness evaporated. The ingratiating smile vanished. The club nosed forward. "Travelin' companions! Ha! Since when? He don't belong to you, stranger. You ought not poke your long nose in where it ain't wanted. Hand him over!"
"Ah. You've made yourself quite clear. Good day, gentlemen."
He turned quickly, placed a foot in the stirrup and started to swing himself up. At the same moment one of the men tossed a stone at the horse's flank. The roan whinnied and started; he jerked away with Nod clinging to his mane. Mithrandir's foot flew up as he tumbled backward. The reins slipped from his fingers, and the encircling men closed in. In that instant he saw what would be the boy's best chance. He shouted as he hit the ground.
"Away, Rubeo! Hang on, boy!"
Rubeo reared and jumped over his master. Men lunged to escape flying hooves and the red stallion galloped through the grass. Mithrandir sprang to his feet and swung his staff, smashing the raised bow poised to send an arrow at the fleeing horse and rider. That was enough to buy the needed seconds. The horse was gone, and the boy with him. Three men ran in pursuit. In a few moments they gave up and circled back to the riverbank. He was surrounded again.
"What did you go and do that for, long-beard?" the big man snarled. He slapped the club into the palm of his hand as he looked askance at the stranger's outlandish robe.
Mithrandir stared coldly. "I am not in the habit of returning slaves to captivity."
The man who had been aiming an arrow at Nod shouted, his face flushed.
"You gonna pay us what that one was worth?"
"I'm afraid not, gentlemen. What money I had was on that horse. And the worth of a boy is not measured in coin."
The red-faced man brandished his broken bow.
"I been out here all day, and I ain't going home with nothin'!"
Mithrandir grinned crookedly. "Well, then, you shall go home having learned a valuable lesson: aiding slavers and hunting children for bounty doesn't pay."
The big man signaled to the others.
"Lesson! We'll give you a lesson. We'll close up that smart mouth of yours and teach you what pays!"
"I have no desire to fight…" The cudgel swung. "…but if you insist!" Mithrandir said as he blocked the blow with his staff.
The ring of men took a step inward. The staff whistled as he wheeled from side to side. A few seemed furious, ready to have at him at once; others held back, cautiously watching. Which ones did this for hire, he wondered, and which for the pleasure of bloodshed? Might any of these have enough sense, enough decency to fall back, drop their weapons and refuse to participate? Might even one take his side against the others? He scanned their eyes, searching. Too many; they moved too fast. No time for that now. Better pay attention!
He kept them at bay, knocking a few heads and smacking a knee or two. He seemed to know instinctively when someone was sneaking behind him, and the staff would whistle again. Three retreated, groaning; nine remained to contend with, staying carefully out of range of the swooping staff. He didn't know how seriously to take this lot. They had more bluster than boldness, and he didn't want to hurt a gang of blustering fools.
He had many ways to defend himself. He could wield a blade with skill, when he had one--which unfortunately wasn't now. He was quick on his feet, and not too proud to run when the circumstances called for a swift retreat. But as the wolves had discovered, he had other, hidden skills. His gaze and voice carried the force of command over those with weaker wills. Fire and lightning obeyed him. The folk of the village had not called him "magician" for nothing. The chief of the wolf pack had been struck dead by a searing blue bolt in the middle of a frigid but clear night, and the rest of the howling pack had fled from the flying sparks that suddenly rained from a cloudless sky. With sufficient concentration he could even vanish, though he preferred to only call on that talent when darkness obscured his sudden disappearance.
But bounty-hunting peasants weren't ravening wolves. These men seemed a bit timid and rather slow, only dangerous because they'd gathered into a pack of sorts. He had been warned to avoid displays of the extraordinary, for the consequences were often rather inconvenient. If possible, he preferred settling matters in more traditional ways.
Yet they had him outnumbered, and his only traditional weapon was the weathered branch of an ash tree. A few of the men dared draw closer. He jerked forward to avoid the jabs of a pitchfork between his shoulder blades and encountered the point of a knife. He parried a thrusting stroke, turning it sideways. He heard fabric tear and felt the knife nick his chest. He thrust the staff backward blindly and was rewarded by a satisfying oof as it connected with the midsection of the man with the pitchfork. In the next instant he swung forward. With a loud crack he sent the dagger flying and the man who'd held it screamed.
"My arm, he's broken my arm! Shoot him, Hasman! What're you waiting for?"
They all turned to look at the man with the remaining unbroken bow, whose name was apparently Hasman. The archer stood back, well out of reach of the staff. How did I fail to notice that one? Mithrandir thought. But Hasman hesitated, the bow at his side, an arrow held loosely against the string.
"Go on, Hasman!" the big man shouted. The gang leader's patience with this game had reached its limit. This would ordinarily be over by now. They'd have thrashed the stranger until he was cowed and pleading for mercy, and that would be the end of it. But this one was stubborn. He showed no signs of giving in, and he fought as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Best get rid of him. "Shoot! Now!"
Hasman shook his head. "I don't like this. I thought we were just going to teach 'im a lesson."
"We're beyond lessons. Do it!"
"You mean kill him? What did he do, that I should murder a stranger?"
The rest of the men shuffled into two lines, right and left, to watch the show from a vantage point out of the path of the bowman. Mithrandir faced Hasman, taking care to place the lowering sun at his back. Here was one who seemed to have some doubts, who just might step over to his side. He'd talk some sense into these fellows. It would all be over in a minute. He caught the archer's eye and spoke in his most persuasive voice.
"There's no need for more violence. If we stopped attacking one another long enough to have a word…"
The big man bellowed. "Don't listen to 'im, shoot! He broke Murtle's arm, what more do you want?"
"'At's right, he broke my arm!" Murtle howled.
"You tried to stab him," Hasman said. "What did you expect?"
Mithrandir took a step toward him, one hand palm outward.
"As you say, friend, I do nothing but defend myself."
Hasman was weakening. But the red-faced man moved faster.
"The bastard as good as stole our money! Whose friend are you, ours or his?" he shouted as he ran to the reluctant archer's side. "Give me that, if you're too soft to do it!" He grabbed the bow and shoved Hasman away.
They stood a dozen yards from the trees that lined the river. There was nowhere to hide. When the bow twanged Mithrandir ducked. The first arrow whistled overhead. He started to run. The lines closed in and a wall of swinging weapons prevented his escape. He heard the second arrow whiz toward his back. He spun; the razor-sharp point sliced the outside of his upper arm. Ouch! A bit to close for comfort, he thought. This has become a more challenging game.
He glared intently at the red-faced man. The archer squinted into the sunset and paused, long enough for Mithrandir to count his remaining arrows. Nine, including the one on his bowstring. He focused on the arrowhead pointing straight at him.
"Have you turned to stone, Tarand?" the big man growled. "Shoot, will you?"
The red face contorted and an arrow flew. Mithrandir held perfectly still. At the last moment the dart swerved to the left, and missed him by a foot. Tarand cursed and readied another. The next whooshed by on the right.
"What are you playing at?" Murtle cried.
"Where's your aim gone, Tarand?"
Slowly Mithrandir paced backward between the lines of shouting men. Another arrow overshot the top of his head by a yard. The next fell short, and the third flew straight up and thudded into the ground ten feet behind the archer.
"Somethin's wrong with my arrows!" Tarand yelled shrilly, as he twisted to stare at the still-quivering shaft.
"Somethin's wrong with your eye, you fool!" Murtle shouted.
Mithrandir's lips twitched as he retreated another few steps. Four to go. The big man stared at the ghost of a smile on the stranger's face as the sixth arrow flew directly toward him. He gaped as the stranger tilted his head to the side just in time for the bolt to fly by, coming close enough to ruffle a strand of his long hair.
"He's bewitching them arrows!" he thought. "With them fierce eyes of his…"
Mithrandir failed to notice as the big man crept behind him. He was staring intently at the seventh arrow when something slammed against the back of his head. His ears rang and his concentration wavered. He heard an arrow spinning toward him; he tried to focus. It wobbled and veered—but not enough. With an ugly thump the dart struck a hand's span below his right groin. What a horribly unpleasant feeling. A wave of cold nausea rushed through him as he clutched his thigh. Blood oozed through his fingers.
A second blow smacked into his skull, and his thoughts began to get sluggish. This isn't right. Can't think of what I should be doing. He wheeled and swung the staff behind him. It whistled into empty air. The next bolt buried itself in a muscle near his spine. As he stumbled and caught himself, he saw staring faces all around him in a tilting circle.
The men who still had the stomach for this kind of fight closed in. A pitchfork raked across his ribs as another blow crashed into his cheek. A hand with a dagger loomed at the edge of his vision. He gasped in disbelief as the blade sank into his side. This can't be. He staggered as a hoe gouged his back and a rake handle snapped against his face. It's too soon. Too much to do. The staff fell from his shaking fingers.
"Clear the way!" a voice called.
The mob fell back and a blurred vision of red-faced Tarand appeared a dozen feet in front of him. Instinct shifted him slightly to the left as he heard the faint whir of the next dart. Bone splintered in his chest as the impact threw him backward. As he hit the ground he heard wood snap and wondered who could be stabbing him from behind.
Vague figures peered downward as he lay sprawled on the grass, panting for air.
"He's a goner."
"Thought he'd never topple."
"Aye; stubborn long-beard, wasn't he?"
There was a noisy struggle at the edge of the encircling faces.
"Give me that quiver!" a voice growled.
"He's down, what more do you want?"
"Give it over, Hasman!"
A shadow leaned from the left. He felt someone step on his hand, holding his left arm stretched out flat. There was an odd sound, something like hissing. He realized it was laughter.
"Hasman's arrows ain't bewitched. Shame to let them go to waste."
The bow twanged. His breath caught as an arrow tore through his forearm from less than two feet away. His arm was skewered to the ground. More hissing. The shadow moved, readied another. He groaned as it pierced the muscle above his left knee and slammed into bone.
"I could fill 'im full of pins, help 'im learn that lesson."
He tried to focus on the face of the bowman. If he could catch his gaze, he might reach his mind. If he could find his eyes, he might stop this. But his sight was too dim to see that far.
The loudest voice laughed harshly. "You're a bloodthirsty bastard, ain't you?"
The hissing shadow raised the bow again. The next arrow drove through his calf, puncturing the leather of his boot and pinning his right leg at an odd angle. He squeezed his eyes shut.
"Enough, enough! You don't want to kill 'im too soon, Tarand, he's got a lesson to learn! Besides, the sun's almost gone. I for one don't relish meeting the pack that hunts in this valley after dark, but I don't suppose they'll mind finding this little present, all ready for 'em! Hey, long-beard," the harsh voice snarled. The toe of a boot prodded his side. He opened his eyes and saw the large man leaning over him. "Well, now, I'll wager you're wishin' you'd handed over that young savage like I told you to. I don't know who or what you are, stranger, but you best start prayin' to whatever gods you have. Pray you die before them wolves find you, nicely trussed out and helpless. Better to bleed to death than be et alive, eh?" He leaned close. "But don't worry. We'll be back in the morning to clean up the mess. We'll burn whatever's left—and we won't care any more than the wolves if you be alive or dead." The man raised his arm and smiled viciously. "Ah, yes. Almost forgot. Just one more lesson…"
The club flew toward him and frightful pain exploded in his face.
"There. Fixed that long nose! Teach you not to poke it where it shouldn't be."
The shadows laughed and darkness fell.
When he next opened his eyes it was night and he was deadly cold. Stars swirled in his head; stars wheeled above. He saw fleeting pictures and heard a rush of noise: a boy, grinning; men snarling and shouting; a piercing thud, then another, and another.
His first thought was to be vaguely surprised. How could something like this happen? It seemed absurdly common. He remembered he'd been a fool, not taking them seriously until it was too late. He hadn't properly defended himself, lulled by their soft peasant faces and motley collection of farm implements. Why had he been so careless? This wasn't how it was supposed to end. He had hardly begun his work. It was almost laughable!
Then he began to take stock of how he felt, which was not amusing in the least. His throat was parched and his head throbbed. His beard was matted with blood and frost; his nose was blocked. Every breath tore through him like a dagger. His back arched upward. Had he landed on a branch, impaling himself? Something caught his left arm--he couldn't remember what. He didn't seem able to move his right leg. His right hand was stiff. He gripped something tightly. What was he holding? It was thin, hard, his fingers stuck to it. So this is mortality. He drifted into an icy fog, an arrow clutched in his fist.
He woke to eerie howling. Animal breath steamed at his face. His eyes opened to the gleam of a pair of wolf eyes staring at him. He stared back, suddenly wide awake. He knew wolves. They respected strength; you just had to give them a show of it. From somewhere deep within he found a voice. The voice commanded the wolf to leave in its own tongue. His right hand drifted upward, pointing. A spark sputtered and leaped the gap between fingertip and wolf-muzzle. He heard a faint whine. The luminous eyes blinked out. The howls faded. He heard a message in the fearsome sound: keep back, the fire wizard is here. Stay away. They were gone.
He wanted to sleep, but something nagged at him. Wolves. The wolves reminded him of something. The snarling man, what had he said? Morning, and fire! The mob was coming back. He must move at once, must leave this place before morning.
He tried to raise his head, pushing against the ground with his right hand. A bolt of lightning slammed into his chest while unseen claws ripped into his limbs. He cried out and fell back, unable to breathe.
Minutes passed. He tried again, moving slowly, slowly, reaching with his right hand. He imagined he was a tree, earthbound and stiff. He must pull up his own roots, to escape from the woodmen coming with axe and flame. He had a grip on the shaft of the arrow that caught his left arm. It is a sickly branch that should be pruned, he told himself. It snapped, and a jolt shot from wrist to shoulder. He gritted his teeth as he dragged the limb up and off the broken shaft, the arrow's point still imbedded in the ground. The dart in his right calf suddenly cracked and pulled free of the turf, dislodged by his twisting movements. The tree had broken the bonds that tied it to the earth.
He sat up, arms limp, head bowed. Faint lines emerged from his body: one came straight out from his right thigh; a second dove in at an angle above his left knee; and the third, protruding from the center of his chest, bounced slightly. Feathers sprouted from the ends of these thin branches. A picture came into his mind, of glittering points with barbs, deep within his flesh. He gritted his teeth as he grasped the arrow buried in his right thigh. He tugged at it until it loosened from bone. He pulled with a harsh groan, and it tore free with a rush of dark blood. He was drenched with sweat, and gasping for air. The dark night suddenly grew darker as his vision dimmed.
Slowly his head cleared. He opened his eyes. He had removed two arrows, and could see two more. He knew there was another he could not see or reach in his back, and the sixth, in splinters within his right calf muscle. A wave of nausea swept through him as he thought of how they would feel coming out. Enough. No use pulling the rest of them out here, in the dark, nothing to bind them. Must leave this place. More pruning would have to wait. The tree dragged itself upright and began to stagger forward.
The night's silence was broken by voices and the creak of wagon wheels. A boy and a woman arrived in a horse-drawn cart. The boy whispered excitedly.
"It was here, Mistress, by the stream. Near them trees!"
"We'd best start searching for this bearded rescuer of yours. Get the light, Nod."
A lantern was uncovered. The woman and the boy stared into the night. They saw nothing but strange distorted shapes of tangled tree trunks and tilting shadows. Suddenly an apparition appeared in the wavering glow: rough grey bark topped with a wild tangle of moss, thin branches pointing out at odd angles. But this tree was moving! It lurched toward the cart and reached out with one trembling hand. The woman gasped as eyes and a bloodied face appeared amidst the moss. The half-tree, half-man fell to its knees as if the light was a weight too heavy to bear.
"By all the gods! Was that…?"
"I…I think so… But he's hurt bad …"
The voices were now very close. He tried opening his eyes, but the light stabbed into his brain. He squeezed them shut.
"Look at him! I've never seen… What kind of men would do this?" she said, her voice trembling. "Thank goodness you escaped, child."
"I only got away 'cause of him..."
Through his broken nose he faintly smelled fresh hay and a sturdy horse. And another scent--some herb, sweet and wholesome. Gentle hands touched him, coaxed him toward the cart. But the tree was finished walking. Walking was unnatural to a tree; must stay where you are planted.
"I'm afraid he'll go no farther." The woman's voice fell. "Nod, I am truly sorry. You guided me all the way out here, brave boy, and yet it will be for nothing. I don't see how your long-bearded hero will live, lad."
"But he saved me! You got to save him, Mistress…"
The woman was a healer. Though she usually dealt with ordinary sicknesses or injuries, she had on occasion cared for men who had taken wounds in fights, or who had been waylaid by robbers. But this she had not encountered: a shivering, gasping man, barely alive, impaled by half a dozen arrows, bruised, battered and bleeding on every side. His attackers had apparently surrounded him and hadn't stopped once he was down. How he managed to stay even partly upright was a mystery. Her quick eyes darted about. Her sharp mind assessed what had occurred, and what seemed inevitable. She took the boy's hands into her own.
"I am sorry, child. His wounds are mortal. I cannot save him, no one can."
"No, no, you must! Please, take the arrows away and heal him!"
"Nod, listen to me… Arrows are evil weapons, designed to do more damage coming out than going in. I'll just be hurting him more, boy. It will do no good…"
"Please, oh please! You got to help him--you got to!"
She stared at the man slumped on his knees in the lamplight. It was hopeless, and it violated the first rule her mother had taught her: do nothing that may increase another's suffering unless you are certain it will help in the long run. She was certain of the opposite--she would just be torturing this miserable wretch, and he would die anyway. Yet the boy was frantic. Perhaps for the boy's sake--when the man died, at least Nod would know she had done all she could.
He heard a cork pulled from a bottle and liquid pouring. A cup pushed against his mouth. Whatever it was, it smelled awful. He twisted away, but soon the same strong odor was there again, beneath his smashed nose.
"A horrible stench, I know, but drink, man. It will ease things for you. Drink!"
A hand pressed on his chin, parting his torn lips. His mouth flooded with bitter liquid. Half of it dribbled down his beard. He swallowed the other half to avoid choking.
"That's right. Here's another mouthful…"
Slowly, night settled on him. He was drowning in frigid water. He was so cold, but at least the pain was less here in this icy lake. He wanted to sink into the dark depths.
The warm hand tugged at some spot on his back. At first it was just a twinge. His eyes opened. Dim light came from behind. He saw his own shadow lying long and black before him. Suddenly the twinge became a stabbing pain. He stiffened and cried out. The hand was making him feel worse, much worse! The one with the soft voice was hurting him, too! Why did everyone in this accursed land want to hurt him? He swayed and fell. Hands searched him, finding every wound, tearing at his flesh. He reached out blindly and clutched a wrist. His voice was a hoarse moan.
"By whatever you find sacred, stop…I beg you…"
A quiet but firm voice bade him lie still while strong fingers pried his grip away.
"I'm trying to help. Let go of me, man. Just two more, then I'll be finished."
He writhed and released a strangled scream as something was ripped from near his left knee. He sank into the black lake. He was unaware as she sat watching the final protruding shaft vibrate with every heartbeat for a full minute before she worked up her courage to touch it. He felt nothing as she struggled to withdraw the last arrow from near the center of his chest. He didn't see as she pressed her ear to him, waiting with a dry throat for motionless silence.
Heartbeat and breath did not cease. She sat up and stared, counting slowly to one hundred. She listened again. He was still alive! How could it be? She shook her head and frowned. Maybe, just maybe there was a chance. And if so, she had a lot of work to do.
"Help me with him, Nod."
They grunted and pulled. Somehow the woman and the boy moved him from the field into the back of the cart. She knelt on the boards, while Nod crouched nearby watching with wide eyes. Her deft fingers stripped bloody clothing away. She worked quickly, dabbing soothing ointments and binding lengths of cloth over each wound.
She wiped his blood from her hands with a clean, damp cloth. The woman sighed as she covered him with blankets. His wounds were deep, and so many. He had lost too much blood. She was sure now. He was sinking fast. Well, if she could do nothing else, she could ease the passing of this stranger who had helped Nod escape, and bury him when he died. At least his corpse wouldn't lie here for wolves to devour.
"We've done all we can. Let's get on home, Nod."
Wooden wheels creaked as the cart jostled along. He wanted to cry out, but he seemed to have fallen mute. The woman glanced back and saw the shimmer of his half-opened eyes. His silence despite the jerky ride convinced her that he would soon be gone. He studied the sky. The stars faded. The east turned grey, then pink; then everything was black. It was all he saw of that day, or the next.
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